“What a Pity She Wasn’t Born a Lad” – Emmeline Pankhurst

Day 38 of Colorization Project – June 14

Emmeline Pankhurst, born in 1858, was a British political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement. Widely criticised for her militant tactics, she was instrumental in helping women win the right to vote.

Born into a well-to-do family, her mother was a committed feminist, who used to take Emmeline along to suffrage meetings in the early 1870s whilst her father held conventional ideas about education for women. As a child she overheard her father say, “What a Pity She Wasn’t Born a Lad.”  This undoubtedly was a motivator for her quest for women’s suffrage and women’s equality.

In 1878 she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister 24 years her senior and well known for supporting the women’s suffrage movement. They had five children over the next ten years. In 1889 Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League, which advocated suffrage for both married and unmarried women.

Emmeline Pankhurst

    Photograph Studio Matzene c. 1913  – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

In 1903 Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an all-women suffrage advocacy organisation dedicated to “deeds, not words.” Through their deeds however, the group quickly developed a bad reputation for their militancy and the use of violence. As Pankhurst’s oldest daughter Christabel took over the reins of the WSPU, antagonism between the group and authorities grew. WSPU activists including Pankhurst’s other daughters, were repeatedly sentenced to prison terms, during which they staged hunger strikes in order to secure better conditions. 

Arson was another tactic employed by the WSPU and with the increased use of violence many WSPU members were becoming disenfranchised.  Many members left the movement arguing that the violence was unnecessary and counter-productive to the cause. In 1913 Adela and Sylvia Pankhurst, Emily’s other daughters left the WSPU creating a rift in the family which never healed. In that same year, suffragette Emily Davison was killed after throwing herself under the King’s horse.

Public opinion of the British suffragette movement was becoming polarised. However at the outbreak of war in 1914, there was a shift. Emily Pankhurst directed her campaigning tactics towards supporting the war effort. A temporary truce in the women’s suffrage campaign was announced.

By 1918, the suffrage movement won a small victory with the Representation of the People Act (1918) which gave voting rights to all men over the age of 21 and to women over the age of 30.

As time wore on Emmeline Pankhurst grew more conservative in her political views. Concerned about the perceived growing Bolshevist threat, she joined the Conservative party in 1926 and the following year ran for Parliament as a Conservative candidate. She also transformed the WSPU machinery into the Women’s Party, and dedicated its work to the empowerment of women through equality. 

In 1928 Emmeline Pankhurst’s health was on the decline and on this day, 14th June, she passed away.  Three weeks later on the 2nd July, the Conservative government’s Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the vote to all women over 21 years of age. 

In 1999 Time magazine named Emmeline Pankhurst as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.


“It was a custom of my father and mother to make the round of our bedrooms every night before going themselves to bed. When they entered my room that night I was still awake, but for some reason I chose to pretend I was asleep. My father bent over me, shielding the candle flame with his big hand. I cannot know exactly what I thought was in his mind as he gazed down at me, but I heard him say, somewhat sadly, “What a pity she wasn’t born a lad.”

My first hot impulse was to sit up in bed and protest that I didn’t want to be a boy, but I lay still and heard my parents’ footsteps pass on toward the next child’s bed. I thought about my father’s remark for many days afterward… It was made quite clear that men considered themselves superior to women, and that women accepted this situation. I found this view of things difficult to reconcile with the fact that both my father and my mother were advocates of women having the vote.”   Emmeline Pankhurst 1914 – My Own Story (Autobiography)


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One Response to “What a Pity She Wasn’t Born a Lad” – Emmeline Pankhurst

  1. Pingback: Lucy Burns – The Iron Jawed Angel | Random Phoughts

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